Home > The Lean Post> Ask Art: Why Is Something As Simple As Lean So Difficult to Do?

Ask Art: Why Is Something As Simple As Lean So Difficult to Do?

by Art Byrne
December 21, 2016

Ask Art: Why Is Something As Simple As Lean So Difficult to Do?

by Art Byrne
December 21, 2016 | Comments (15)

Recently my good friend Paul Akers of FastCap and lean blogging fame asked me why lean, which appears to be so simple, ends up being so hard for people to do. In my decades of leading lean, in fact, this has proven to be perhaps the most important challenge.

Back when I was one of the two Group Executives at The Danaher Corporation, we were lucky to be the first and only US-based client of the Shingijutsu consultants. At the time Shingijutsu consisted of only three people; each had spent his entire career at Toyota, a good part of it working directly for Taiichi Ohno, the father of the Toyota Production System. These “insultants” (that’s what they called themselves) started at two of my companies, Jacobs Chuck and Jacobs Brake (Jake Brake), with Brake taking the lead under its president and great leader George Koenigsaecker.

From the very beginning George and I saw lean as the most potent strategic weapon that any company could have. We wondered why it had not been adopted more widely. One day at lunch we asked Shingijutsu President Mr. Iwata how Ohno could allow them to teach other companies about this weapon. He smiled, laughed a bit, and said to us: “I can tell you about the Toyota Production System. I can even take you and show you the system in action. But I bet you can’t go home and do it.”

Here we are 30 years later and Mr. Iwata’s statement is still true. More and more companies today are trying, or have tried, lean, but very few succeed. My guess (based on observation, and input from leading lean consultants and other experts) is that only 4-6 percent of all companies end up becoming a complete lean enterprise.

Why do so few companies succeed at lean? It’s not because lean is so complicated; the fundamentals of lean are simple and straightforward. Nor is it because lean is capital intensive (in fact it frees up cash by waking up and putting to use the “sleeping money” dozing in excess inventory or other wastes.)

The first reason why few succeed is that the approach is almost the exact opposite of everything we have been taught in the traditional batch world. Second, roughly 90 percent of all companies that start lean see it only as a cost reduction program and as a result, they miss the strategic and customer-focused aspects completely. They drop lean on top of a traditional batch structure without understanding the lean changes EVERYTHING. Third, the lean community hasn’t helped by focusing on lean as a bunch of tools as opposed to a way to run your business. Few books discuss the complete business perspective of lean.

Outweighing all of this however is the lack of lean leadership. Most people have been taught the traditional approach of managing by the numbers, focusing on “make the month” targets. They essentially manage looking backwards at these results instead of managing forwards by improving processes as a means of improving future results. They find it difficult to shift to lean leadership and its emphasis on eliminating waste in order to deliver more value to your customers and on creating a learning environment so that every employee can learn to contribute. On top of that, CEOs tend to have personality types that are not compatible with lean: a command-and-control approach coupled with a risk-averse mindset.

So what enables lean leaders to succeed? Ultimately I think that it comes down to certain leadership characteristics. In our recent chat, Paul identified three traits he believes lean leaders need in order to succeed. He or she must be humble, curious, and willing to be criticized—to admit when he or she is wrong in the face of evidence that a better way exists. I agree with Paul that these are indeed crucial.

In my new book The Lean Turnaround Action Guide, I have however added a few more traits that I think are critical. A good lean leader:

  •  Respects their people
  • Has and demonstrates vision
  • Is committed to driving the lean fundamentals
  • Recognizes that “the soft stuff is the hard stuff”
  • Is accessible to everyone
  • Practices “go and see” daily
  • Sets stretch goals
  • Take the leaps of faith
  • Leads by example

This may sound like a lot, but they are natural habits for the lean leader. The lean leader always learns by doing, by being out front and hands-on, and never tries to manage from his or her office or conference room. No value adding is going on there. I always advise companies that are contemplating lean that if you can’t get your CEO to lead it then you are better off to just try and be the best traditional batch company that you can be. If you go down the lean path without the leader you won’t be very successful and will just get everyone confused along the way.

So, in summary, although the lean principles themselves are pretty simple, without the correct leadership it is perhaps one of the hardest changes for any business to make. But you can make a difference if you are willing to try. Just do it!

The views expressed in this post do not necessarily represent the views or policies of The Lean Enterprise Institute.
Keywords:  culture,  getting started,  leadership
Search Posts:
Design the Work, Design the Experience
Alice Lee, Hollie Jensen, Josh Howell, Karen Gaudet & Matthew Savas
The Lean Manager
By Michael Ballé and Freddy Ballé
Was this post... Click all that apply
HELPFUL INTERESTING INSPIRING ACCURATE
37 people say YES
33 people say YES
32 people say YES
34 people say YES
Related Posts
15 Comments | Post a Comment
kevin kobett December 21, 2016
2 People AGREE with this comment

The customer is always right. When a customer complains, we post it for all employees to see. All employees are asked to solve this problem.

When someone solves a problem we ask them, "Who was helpful?" This identifies the organization's true leader. She doesn't have to be urged to go to the gemba. She is already there. She does this because that is who she is. She has no choice in the matter.

When hiring outside the company, we will ask each applicant, "What made you happy on your present job?" The most impressive answer is a lean improvement made me happy. Those that answer the question in that manner will be taken to the customer complaint board. Any experienced lean leader will have some ideas on how to get started.

The current hiring process is the most unlean process of all. Basically companies let other companies hire their lean leaders. If you worked at GE and are certified, you are hired. I have never seen this work.

Reply »

Mark Graban December 21, 2016
2 People AGREE with this comment

Lean concepts can seem very simple. But, like you said, they're very different than the ways people have been taught.

Lean concepts are simple. 

People are complicated.

Transforming an organization becomes infinitely more challenging. There's nothing easy about changing a culture. That shouldn't surprise people.

Reply »

art byrne December 23, 2016

Mark, thanks for your comments. A good add as always. To me, making the lean conversion "is all about people'. That is what you are trying to transform and that is why it is so difficult. We have all learned a certain way to do things based on our past experience. Then along comes this lean guy and says, "look, everything here is no good, what do you want to do about it?" Well, the first reaction of most people is along the lines of ,"wait just a minute you can't just come in here and say that. We are a good company." Now if you can't overcome that hurdle what chance do you have? And if the company has 1,000 employees that means that you have 1,000 hurdles to overcome. Not surprising that so many CEO's don't even want to try. It could be hard. It could take time. Lets just stay like we are.

Reply »

Edgar Agustin December 24, 2016

Wow! "That is what you are trying to transform (people)"...

I've been a Six Sigma practitioner for a decade, but when I bought and read your book, " The Lean Turnaround," I got a turnaround in my thinking.

The CEO must be involved in any continuous improvement initiative, whether Lean or Six Sigma or both. The amazing thing about Lean ( as taught by Ohno, Shingo,  Byrne, Koenigsaecker) is that it prescribes and emphasizes the cultural enablers (respect for humanity, humility) in making the initiative succeed, something that I didn't learn in six sigma.

 

Reply »

art byrne December 24, 2016
1 Person AGREES with this reply

Edgar, thanks for your comment. All companies, not just manufacturing companies, are nothing more than a group of people and a bunch of processes trying to deliver value to a set of customers. Removing the waste from your own processes is what allows you to deliver more value. Of course it is your people who created your current processes so in order to change/improve those processes you need to first transform the people so that they can see and understand the waste that exists. That is why lean "is all about people." When you get to the point of having a lean culture you will be hard to beat.

Yitz December 21, 2016

Could it be said that the last trait you mentioned "Leads By Example" is what drives or perhaps even encompsasses the first 8 traits in your list?

A good lean leader:

  •  Respects their people
  • Has and demonstrates vision
  • Is committed to driving the lean fundamentals
  • Recognizes that “the soft stuff is the hard stuff”
  • Is accessible to everyone
  • Practices “go and see” daily
  • Sets stretch goals
  • Take the leaps of faith
  • Leads by example


  • Reply »

art byrne December 23, 2016

Yitz, thanks for your comments. Certainly "leads by example" is very critical to converting to lean but I can't agree that it encompasses the first 8 characteristics. For example the "command and control" manager can lead by example too. It won't have anything to do with lean and I could argue that most of the examples this type of leader might set are the wrong ones. I think that one of the reasons that lean is simple in concept but very hard in practice is that you can't just boil it down to one thing. The leader has to engage in many areas in order to get the rest of the team to make the lean conversion. That is why there are so few real lean leaders.

Reply »

mike December 21, 2016

I wonder how we go about fixing the root cause then? All of us who have had significant experience and significant positive experience know the critical mass is leadership. We all preach that to each other, we bemoan the fact that when it is not there Lean fails, and we detail the list of failures to support our identification of the root cause.

I wonder how we get past this, because, truly this is what most of the posts in regards to lean, especially on Linkedin, are about.

I suppose my point of view is that we maybe should move past this and find something else to post about, like how do we get past this? Lack of Lean leadership is the cause, and if the horse does now want to drink, well then, we'll have to wait for a different horse. Everyone wants to buy but no one wants to be sold, as the saying goes. Maybe we should stop trying to sell to those that do now want to buy. I love being involved in Lean programs, I love it when Leaders and other "get it." I have no interest in trying to convince someone that they should, in fact, "get it." Their business results will take care of that for all of us.

Reply »

art byrne December 23, 2016

Mike, thanks for your comments. Your right of course that not every leader will do lean no matter how hard we try. I get asked all the time "could you come and talk to my management team and convince them to implement lean?" I always say no because it is a waste of everyone's time. If they can see the gains that other companies have gotten from lean but either don't beleive them or think it won't work in their company then you'll never convince them. One of the reasons for this in my mind is that almost everyone views lean as just a cost reduction program or a set of tools that you can select from randomly to make improvements. After all that is what the lean community has mostly been pushing. How many lean books are about "tools?" Until we start talking about lean as a strategy and way to manage your business I think we will be stuck in this rut. In the meantime I think we should try and help the willing learn more and get better and not worry too much about the "no thank you" boys. The competition will take care of them.

Reply »

Weert Jacobsen Kramer December 22, 2016

Hello Art. I read you post on LinkedIn that Daniel Jones pointed out. 

I absolutely agree to and appreaciate Art´s Analysis of why Lean is often perceived as difficult to do.

However I do not agree to the conclusion that Lean Leadership is about showing the right traits. This is exactly where 99% of all the comments on Leadership go wrong.

As in Lean, which works if you have adopted to a "lean Management mind-set", also when it comes to Leadership it is all about having he right lean leadership mind-set.

From my experience in conducting complex culture change management projects it´s not about developing certain traits within managers, it´s really about changing their mind-set in order to becoming a great lean leader.



Reply »

kevin kobett December 22, 2016

Everyone's post are general. No one has any specific ideas to share. Like if someone has a great idea, ask them who was helpful. I have been coming to this site for years and I cannot remember one thing I have added to my lean plan.

Surely there is one person out there that has something new and specific to share.

Reply »

art byrne December 23, 2016

Weert, thanks for your comments, I'm glad you enjoyed the article. I appologize if I was unclear. I am not trying to say that lean leadership is about showing the right traits. It is about having enough understanding about the lean fundamentals that the leader can have the correct lean "eyes" or mind set to get his/her organization to change. If you don't understand lean in the first place it is pretty hard to be a lean leader. The reference to leadership traits from both Paul Akers and me was more an observation that those who have become good lean leaders also happen to have certain traits that help to make them successful. The command and control and very insecure managers, for example, have a much harder time changing their mind set when presented with the potential gains from lean and are therefore unlikely to ever become lean leaders.

Reply »

Dan Edds December 27, 2016

To the quesiton - why is it so difficult? Becauase it takes work and all too frequently the status quo just takes less work than going through the painfull process of discovering that we are not as good as we thought. Usually, the block as at the leadership level. Lean requires leaders giving up control and distributing power to the rank and file, those who actually interface with the customer. As humans we hate the idea of giving up control. 

Reply »

art byrne December 27, 2016

Dan, thanks for your input. All of what you say is true. It is hard for any company, particularly the management, to beleive that maybe they are not as good as they think they are. But, if your running a company and you don't want to get better, your probably in the wrong job.

Reply »

williamcui April 15, 2017
1 Person AGREES with this comment

I have been working on lean implementation for 12 years in china factories. My understadning is that lean is completly opposite way to Talor or Ford management system. Lean is one kinda culture building. Lean is conducive to the leadership from TOP leveal who must really have this sense of lean and who must take a lead to go see, go ask, go listen or learn , go try or teach. China is also doing lean. But few of them finally succeed. Seems simple but rather difficult.

However, I still believe lean. It is one system to push the world forward and make the work better.

Reply »

Search Posts:
Design the Work, Design the Experience
Alice Lee, Hollie Jensen, Josh Howell, Karen Gaudet & Matthew Savas
The Lean Manager
By Michael Ballé and Freddy Ballé
Ask Art: How Are Lean Teams Different?
Accountability: Not What You Think it is...
Hanging Up My Cape